Trivium Art History

Odilon Redon
The faces we see in our dreams
1840 — 1916

Odilon Redon was born Bertrand-Jean Redon — his family was wealthy and his youth spent drawing and painting. Artistically he was a bit of a slow starter, failing entrance to the architecture program at École des Beaux-Arts, and dabbling his 20’s away with engraving, lithography and sculpture.

“Charcoal does not allow kindness; it is sober, and only with real emotion can you draw results from it."

When Odilon Redon was 30 years old, he put aside his brushes and engraving tools to fight in the Franco-Prussian war. A year later the French lost the war, and Redon moved to Paris with a headful of bad dreams. Black visions filled his notebooks after the war. Charcoal drawings of creatures hanging in empty space. Winged devils grip giant faces with empty eye sockets. Ears sprout bat wings, and faces emerge from the backs of hairy spiders. Just two decades earlier, Charles Darwin had published The Origin of Species, and the haunting concept of mutated life gripped Europe. Redon’s ‘noirs’, his charcoal abominations, illustrated our murky and prehistoric biology.

In 1884, Redon’s work was featured in Joris-Karl Huysmans’s novel À rebours, or Against Nature. It described the decadent perversities of an anti-hero who collected sinister artwork by Redon, Goya, and El Greco — and experimented with weird sex. This association with the macabre grew Redon’s notoriety, and to this day his noirs are among his most famous work.

"My drawings inspire, and are not to be defined. They place us, as does music, in the ambiguous realm of the undetermined."

For Redon, science would slowly grow to include the spiritual. The Germain idea of Naturphilosophie, that all living things are interconnected, would layer into Buddhist and Hindu philosophy — bringing color back into Redon’s world. By the 1890’s, Redon moved almost exclusively to pastel — saying it “comforted” him — and the spiders and spermatoid eyeballs were replaced by twigs of fresh branches, grasses and flowers. Even his Cyclops appears benevolent. His paintings are dreamscapes still, but they are meditative, quiet — finally at peace.

"The Artist submits from day to day to the fatal rhythm of the impulses of the universal world which encloses him, continual centre of sensations, always pliant, hypnotized by the marvels of nature which he loves, he scrutinizes. His eyes, like his soul, are in perpetual communion with the most fortuitous of phenomena." — Odilon Redon

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